Theorizing the Modern World: a critique

Alasdair MacIntyre in his book After Virture: A Study in Moral Theory ( Notre Dame, IN: Uni of N. D. Press, 1984) argues that submission to law, whether it be the moral law discoverable by the light of pure reason (Kant) or that of the "logos embedded in the cosmos", constitutes a neoStoic phenomena in our modern era. Stoicism is characterized by its attempt to overcome the alienation resulting from the loss of the ancient Greek city-state by construing the cosmos as its home. MacIntyre traces such Stoic-like sensibility to a similar experience of "the loss of a community which envisages its life as directed toward a shared good which provides that community with its common tasks". In Kant's philosophy then we find the adherence to moral law as a replacement of those past allegiances to ethical traditions which were embedded in the life of a community. So called rationally derivable moral laws are in a sense the new community to which the modern West (man) has come to submit. Yet there are ever more subtle new locales such as "nature", or "human nature" etc. to which the modern citizen defers. Jim Cheney in his seminal essay Nature/Theory/ Difference (New York, Routledge, 1994) in quoting MacIntyre concludes that in neither case (ratio nor logos) do individuals live and breathe in the moral atmosphere of the communities in which they find themselves; rather in both cases morality consists in suppression of the private self and in adherence to or identificaton with either morally autonomous reason or divine logos (Cheny1994: 159). A such nominated "human nature" for example is nothing other than a universalizing acontextulisation which characterizes not only modern ethical theory but also its theorizing of the world (Cheny1994:160). Thus in our time reason and logos constitute the basis of the totalizing and colonizing practices of modern theorizing:

"-by this I mean that, rather than viewing the theorizing of the world as explicitly contextual, as socially constructed and negotiated within specific historical, cultural, and ecological contexts, modernism constructs foundationalist epistemologies by means of which it pretends to true and universal accounts of the nature of the cosmos, human nature, and the moral law" (Cheny 1994:160).

He explains further in his own footnote to the above quote:

"In the case of law, another strategy of modernism has been to relegate value to human (or divine) subjectivity, thereby "purifying" our theorizing of the world by means of a radical split between fact (objective, value-free) and value (subjective)."

For Cheny these are the totalizing instruments of the colonizers and cultural invaders making them the dominant culture which by exercising theoretical hegemony controls and oppreses all else. He argues that wielding of modern (totalizing) theory is a matter of age, class, race, or gender privilege, and:

"-any who find themselves, willing or not, members of a dominant group find themselves drawn, consciously or not, to the wielding of that special power, the power to name the good and the true. White, middle-class feminist theory, in its deconstruction of various aspects of modern philosophy, has convincingly shown that philosophy is no innocent bystander in the forays of cultural imperialism. Even apparently well-intended attempts to forgo this imperialistic colonization are often scuttled by this endemic feature of dominant cultures. It should not be surprising, then, to find that white, middle-class feminist theorizing has been subjected to many of the same criticisms as has Western male-authored theory {see Spelman 1988: Frye 1990}"(Cheny 1994: 160).

This intelectual imperialism and totalizing control of modern Western theorizing is alienating everyone including the dominators. Susan Boro's phrase, a "flight to objectivity", shows that the subtext of the birth of modern, foundationalist, and ahistorical theorizing both in the sciences as well as in value-theory is a motivated movement away from personal, cultural, and linguistic embeddedness in the flux of the world to the safe and distant world of acontextual "truth" (S. R. Bordo, The Flight to Objectivity: Essays on Cartesianism and Culture, (Albany, State University of New York Press, 1987). For men as Bordo points out this alienation, this use of totalizing objectivity has also been a flight from both women as well as nature.

Since any form of domination creates alienation in the suppressed and the suppressors alike alternative forms of cultures spring up given favourable social conditions. Cheny sees these new communities form first and foremost on an abstract (salvational) level as he calls it. He cites as example the ancient Stoics who as source of concrete identity and community for privileged Greek males, formed an exceedingly abstract (and exclusive) notion of community together with a correspondingly abstract notion of ethical obligation in the wake of the disintegration of their polis. Likewise Marilyn Frye in her book The Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory, (Trumansburg, NY: The Crossing Press, 1983), finds the alienation of modern Western culture problematic for some male intellectuals and also for some white, feminist theoretitians for example. In the latter case, Frye argues that the construction of an abstract community "woman" provides the desired non alianating, harmonic (therefore abstract and salvational) "home". As Marilyn Frye puts it:

"It is only against a backround of an imagined community of ultimate and perfect agreement that we dare to think it possible to make meaning (theorize). This brings us to an arrogance of our own, for we make it a prerequisite for our construction of meaning that other women be what we need them to be to constitute the harmonious community of agreement we require." (Frye 1983:81)

M.C. Lugones and E.V. Spellman in Women and Values: Readings in Recent Feminist Philosophy, (Belmont, CA, Wadsworth, 1986, p.23) think that alienation can also be seen in another more positive light, by providing us with the possiblity to imagine the remaking of one's culture (revolution); however they conceed the great danger that the cultural "home" created by the theorizing of "woman" for example will function mostly imperialistically in relation to other woman. For most of us in the modern West the taking up residence in the arms of theory has provided safety and certainty of a sort Cheny argues. The cost, however, he goes on to say is a continuation of alienation and the (however inadvertent) colonization of others, as well as the maintenance of class privilege, and in particular a blindness to difference.


Blindness to difference, as Maria Lugones has observed, can even coexist with the recognition of (and theorizing about) the "problem of difference". Symptomatic of this situation is the example she cites where white, feminist theorists tend not to hear criticism from women of color as an attack on white racism but as an attack on the activity of theorizing. Rather than responding interactively to the charge of racism, the tendency has been to mediate further on theory construction (Lugones 1991). In light of Cheny's neoStoic text of alienation/salvation we can see many new communities and "homes" being created. Not only different waves of feminism or post-colonialism but also ever new kinds of ecological consciousnesses are attemting the building of a "tower beyond the reach of tragedy" as refered to by Deep Ecologist poet Robinson Jeffers already in a1977 poem . One may argue that the demise of modernism should be its shattering into a world of difference, namely the arrival of the postmodern world(-view) yet as many of the Deep Ecologist and Ecofeminists see it: the subtext is still the idea of containment, containment of the other, of difference, rather than genuine recognition, acknowledgment, and embracing of the other (Cheny 1994: 164).

What is needed is acknowledgment of otherness and equality simultaneously, centralizing ethical and epistemological difference rather than subsuming difference within a totalizing vision together with its consequent salvational projects (read projections). We must first expand again our ethical theory which has been conviniently parred down historically to contain by now merely a morally autonomous rationality (Kant) and sentience (forms of Utilitarianism). Environmental ethicians for one have often argued that we have direct obligations to nonhuman others (a term which is used far beyond "sentient" or "nonsentient" entities) to at least consider the implications of those traditional criteria which might hopefully lead us to arguing for new and more inclusive criteria (Cheny 1994: 164).


What have the different uses of theorizing to do with trying to build a safe new "home" (salvation) on the one side or to cause a revolution (liberation) on the other? Whichever of the two is to be applied will entirely depend on the positions and circumstances (context) of each protagonist involved. According to Cheny a key feature of liberatory movements is their focus on the historical positionality of the subject of oppression in relationship to the oppresor. A key feature of salvational movements, on the contrary, is their tendency to ahistoricise as well as their desire to create a safe place outside time and circumstance (this be the universalizing, totalizing tendency of dominant cultures). The best example of a salvational theory in the West could be Chritianity which as a religion has become exportable to anyone, anywhere. Yet other native religions were never and could never be used as such intruments of colonization because they are more often than not an astutely atuned expression of relationship between a particular people and/with a particular place etc..

Very often there is a logic of domination at work in theorizing the other. Since at least the Renaissance the "Western world" (human) has assumed that we can come to understand the world totally. This idea has always been based on the theory of sameness of all knowers which turns out to be nothing if not another ideological tool designed to coerce agreement and to socialize people to particular conceptions of rationality or reality. Sameness fact has been peeminently suited to the colonizing tendencies of a dominant culture (Cheny 1914:168). Conversance with other cultures (particular tribal cultures) and, in particular, their interactions with nonhuman other (ie nature) reveals that the belief in the sameness of all knowers is far from universal, while subscibing to it fosters a false sense of (safe) theoretical self-sufficiency and a lack of real interest in the other as other. Belief in the difference of all knowers would make it clear that communication with others is also a matter of negotiating reality and, with it, values. (Cheny 1994:168). Whereas the assumption of the sameness of all knowers permits the arrogant view that the world can be theorized from one's own case as observer of the world, the assumption of the difference of all knowers suggests the view that the existence and experience of others constitute deontic claims upon us necessitating the interactive construction and negotiation of reality and the values implicit in that construction (Cheny 1994: 169). Thus acknowledgement and respect for difference does not lead to isolation (alieanation) but to interaction and negotiation.

Nomination is domination

Marget Freye argues dead against any recent theories that reek of "relativistic humanism". For her modern Western theorizing has turned into "the bottomless bog of relativistic apolitical postmodernism" in which enumerative generalizations (totalizations) "remark the unremarkable and are unsaying everything that is worth saying in its prescribtive essentialism" (Frye 1990: 179). Against it all Frye poses new forms of theorizing such as for example the consciousness-raising (CR) groups that proliferated at the beginning of the second wave of feminism. In these groups Frye claims:

"-Instead of bringing a phase of enquiry to closure by summing up what is known, as other ways of generalizing (totalizing) do: pattern recognition and construction opens fields of meaning and generates new interpretive possibilities. Instead of drawing (summing up) conclusions from observations, it generates new observations and new patterns." (Frye 1990:170)

Cheny believes any enumerative, statistical, and metaphysical generalizations try to fix patterns (meanings) in nonmetaphorical formulations and thus lose theoretical power by becoming merely reductive and totalizing whereas understanding such patterns as metaphor can legitimately make different kinds of sense in different lives and in different social, cultural, and natural settings. Cheny sees that Frye's strategy opens out on diversity rather than closing on unity; it actively generates experience and new understandings through the metaphorical permutations of patterns and their multible associations. It is difficult to imagine how such mode of theorizing (meaning making), might be used for purposes of colonization. In the theorizing of the modern West we need to start problematizing any subtle unification attempts rather than multiplicity. As ecofeminist Donna Haraway( 1988) argues we need to reconceive the object of knowledge (world (- not just humans)) as "agent(s) in the production of knowledge". Haraway stresses that in speaking of the "objects" of the natural world as agents/actors she is not characterizing them as the usual subjects. Her's is: "the project of finding metaphors that allow us to imagine a knowledge situation that does not set up an active/passive split" (Haraway 1991b:3).

The trouble with language

Historically speaking modernist foundationalism and totalizing theories are born of the dualistic separation of subject and object and the attempt to regain the world (salvation) through foundational epistemology and the correspondence theory of truth. Postmodernism deconstructs this but still leaves the modernist transcendental subject in place as the transcentental creator of discourse and language, thereby leaving us stuck inside a world of words according to Cheny and amongst others ecofeminists such as Frye and Haraway. Cheny asks what we will be left with when finally the transcendental subject is also deconstructed? For him Western postmodernism is still "language all the way down" whereas some other cultures still retain a more mythical understanding of the possibilities of language. The epistemological function of contextualist discouse is documented by Robin Ridington's account of the place of myth in the life of the American Beaver Indians. Ridington points out that for normadic tribes survival "-depends on artifice rather than artifact. They live by knowing how to integrate their own activities with those (non human worlds) around them" (Ridington 1987). In Deep Ecology theory this has been taken up as a notion of bioregions (in-cludes all human and non human others) which now provide the grounding for a new narrative (language) and consequently makes unnessesary the modernWestern theorizing (essentializing) of the idea of self. All language needs to be understood as particular patterns that knit together certain realities whilst it is always already embedded in some particular reality to start with. We need to reclaim language as aware of its function as intermediation (dialogue) between self, culture, and world. Language as a culturally mediated (negotiated) intersection of self and world (other). We have fallen into the trap of calling these intersections our own (trancendental self's) projections and thereby forgetting (besides our active construction of reality) nature's agency in these negotiations.

© 2000 - 2019 Raphael Zimmerman